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A View of Mathematics

A View of Mathematics

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Published by sjaubert

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Published by: sjaubert on Jan 10, 2010
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Mathematics is the backbone of modern science and a remarkably efficient sourceof new concepts and tools to understand the “reality” in which we participate.It plays a basic role in the great new theories of physics of the XXth century suchas general relativity, and quantum mechanics.The nature and inner workings of this mental activity are often misunderstoodor simply ignored even among scientists of other disciplines. They usually onlymake use of rudimentary mathematical tools that were already known in the XIXthcentury and miss completely the strength and depth of the constant evolution of our mathematical concepts and tools.I was asked to write a general introduction on Mathematics which I ended up doingfrom a rather personal point of view rather than producing the usual endless litany“X did this and Y did that”. The evolution of the concept of “space” in math-ematics serves as a unifying theme starting from some of its historical roots andgoing towards more recent developments in which I have been more or less directlyinvolved.
1. The Unity of Mathematics 22. The concept of Space 42.1. Projective geometry 52.2. The Angel of Geometry and the Devil of Algebra 62.3. Noneuclidean geometry 82.4. Symmetries 92.5. Line element and Riemannian geometry 102.6. Noncommutative geometry 142.7. Grothendiecks motives 192.8. Topos theory 203. Fundamental Tools 213.1. Positivity 223.2. Cohomology 223.3. Calculus 233.4. Trace and Index Formulas 253.5. Abelian categories 263.6. Symmetries 284. The input from Quantum Field Theory 294.1. The Standard Model 304.2. Renormalization 344.3. Symmetries 34References 36
The Unity of Mathematics
It might be tempting at first to view mathematics as the union of separate partssuch as Geometry, Algebra, Analysis, Number theory etc... where the first is dom-inated by the understanding of the concept of “space”, the second by the art of manipulating “symbols”, the next by the access to “infinity” and the “continuum”etc...This however does not do justice to one of the most essential features of the math-ematical world, namely that it is virtually impossible to isolate any of the aboveparts from the others without depriving them from their essence. In that way thecorpus of mathematics does resemble a biological entity which can only survive asa whole and would perish if separated into disjoint pieces.The first embryo of mental picture of the mathematical world one can start fromis that of a network of bewildering complexity between basic concepts. Thesebasic concepts themselves are quite simple and are the result of a long process of “distillationin the alembic of the human thought.Where a dictionary proceeds in a circular manner, defining a word by reference toanother, the basic concepts of mathematics are infinitely closer to an “indecompos-able element”, a kind of “elementary particle” of thought with a minimal amountof ambiguity in their definition.This is so for instance for the natural numbers where the number 3 stands for thatquality which is common to all sets with three elements. That means sets whichbecome empty exactly after we remove one of its elements, then remove anotherand then remove another. In that way it becomes independent of the symbol 3which is just a useful device to encode the number.Whereas the letters we use to encode numbers are dependent of the sociological andhistorical accidents that are behind the evolution of any language, the mathematicalconcept of number and even the specificity of a particular number such as 17 aretotally independent of these accidents.The “purity” of this simplest mathematical concept has been used by Hans Freuden-thal to design a language for cosmic communication which he called “Lincos” [39].The scientific life of mathematicians can be pictured as a trip inside the geographyof the “mathematical reality” which they unveil gradually in their own privatemental frame.It often begins by an act of rebellion with respect to the existing dogmatic de-scription of that reality that one will find in existing books. The young “to bemathematician” realize in their own mind that their perception of the mathemat-ical world captures some features which do not quite fit with the existing dogma.This first act is often due in most cases to ignorance but it allows one to free oneself from the reverence to authority by relying on one’s intuition provided it is backedup by actual proofs. Once mathematicians get to really know, in an original and“personal” manner, a small part of the mathematical world, as esoteric as it canlook at first
, their trip can really start. It is of course vital all along not to breakthe “fil d’arianne” which allows to constantly keep a fresh eye on whatever one
my starting point was localization of roots of polynomials.
will encounter along the way, and also to go back to the source if one feels lost attimes...It is also vital to always keep moving. The risk otherwise is to confine oneself in arelatively small area of extreme technical specialization, thus shrinking one’s per-ception of the mathematical world and of its bewildering diversity.The really
fundamental point 
in that respect is that while so many mathematicianshave been spending their entire scientific life exploring that world they all agree onits contours and on its connexity: whatever the origin of one’s itinerary, one day oranother if one walks long enough, one is bound to reach a well known town
forinstance to meet elliptic functions, modular forms, zeta functions. “All roads leadto Rome” and the mathematical world is “connected”.In other words there is just “one” mathematical world, whose exploration is thetask of all mathematicians and they are all in the same boat somehow.Moreover exactly as the existence of the external material reality seems undeniablebut is in fact only justified by the coherence and consensus of our perceptions,the existence of the mathematical reality stems from its coherence and from theconsensus of the findings of mathematicians. The fact that proofs are a necessaryingredient of a mathematical theory implies a much more reliable form of “con-sensus” than in many other intellectual or scientific disciplines. It has so far beenstrong enough to avoid the formation of large gatherings of researchers around some“religious like” scientific dogma imposed with sociological imperialism.Most mathematicians adopt a pragmatic attitude and see themselves as the ex-plorers of this “mathematical world” whose existence they don’t have any wish toquestion, and whose structure they uncover by a mixture of intuition, not so foreignfrom “poetical desire
, and of a great deal of rationality requiring intense periodsof concentration.Each generation builds a “mental picture” of their own understanding of this worldand constructs more and more penetrating mental tools to explore previously hiddenaspects of that reality.Where things get really interesting is when unexpected bridges emerge betweenparts of the mathematical world that were previously believed to be very far remotefrom each other in the natural mental picture that a generation had elaborated. Atthat point one gets the feeling that a sudden wind has blown out the fog that washiding parts of a beautiful landscape.I shall describe at the end of this paper one recent instance of such a bridge. Beforedoing that I’ll take the concept of “space” as a guide line to take the reader througha guided tour leading to the edge of the actual evolution of this concept both in al-gebraic geometry and in noncommutative geometry. I shall also review some of the“fundamental” tools that are at our disposal nowadays such as “positivity”, “coho-mology”, “calculus”, “abelian categories” and most of all “symmetries” which willbe a recurrent theme in the three different parts of this text.It is clearly impossible to give a “panorama” of the whole of mathematics in areasonable amount of write up. But it is perfectly possible, by choosing a precise
as emphasised by the French poet Paul Valery.

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